Madhuri Shekar’s Goal Is to “Always Bee Writing”

Ensemble Theatre presents her play “Queen,” which uses bees as a metaphor for human ethics and relationships.
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Like every performing arts organization, Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati had hoped that 2022 would bring a return to normalcy after almost two years of disruption. Its next production is Queen, an award-winning play by Madhuri Shekar, but the recent COVID surge forced ETC to push it and the following few shows back a month. Still, Shekar, who won the 2020 Lanford Wilson Award from the Dramatists Guild of America for her audio play Evil Eye, says she’d love to make her first trip to Cincinnati at some point during the play’s run February 19–March 19.

PHOTOGRAPH BY GANESH TOASTY

Queen is ostensibly about the science behind the disappearance of bees but turns from science and math to ethics and relationships. Why did you choose bees as the fulcrum?

I kind of stumbled into it. I wanted to write a play in the world of the PhD in science because, when I was getting my Master of Fine Arts degree in theater, my roommate was a PhD student in organic chemistry. I discovered that our work had a lot in common, the same kind of weird life where weekends don’t exist and there’s pressure to publish.

My first attempt at a story was about organic chemistry, but I quickly realized that even organic chemists can’t explain organic chemistry to me. I visited another PhD friend in Berkeley [California] who had friends in ecology. Just by talking to her and her friends, I got to know people who study the natural world. Bees came from there, and they became a very understandable problem and a metaphor.

One of your recent works, Evil Eye, was written as an audio play, then became a movie on Amazon Prime. Can you explain the journey of a story conceived for voices that became visual?

Audible.com is this huge depository of audio books and commissioned a bunch of playwrights to write audio plays. Then my representatives sent the script around and [production company] Blumhouse was interested in turning it into a horror feature. It was an incredible stroke of luck, and I got the opportunity to write the screenplay adaptation, too. It was quite hard actually to do that, very tricky. But, in the end, I really enjoyed the process because each format allowed me to do things with the story that I couldn’t do with the other one.

Another recent project was The Nevers, and now you’re attached to Sister Act 3. What have those experiences been like? I got the job on the TV show because of a play of mine called House of Joy, which is an action-adventure period romance about sword-fighting women and things like that. The Nevers was set in Victorian times about women with superpowers who fight really well. And, yes, I’m writing Sister Act 3 as we speak. Whoopi Goldberg is the producer on it. I really hope we do a good enough job to honor her legacy on this project. Fingers crossed.

Since Queen was first produced in 2017, you’ve won awards for other works, married, and become a mother. How has your life has changed?

[Long pause] I’m a professional writer, and that’s all I ever wanted to be. It’s huge that I can call myself that. I work all day at my job, and it’s kind of amazing. I’m so lucky to have my family, although it’s hard having a kid during COVID [her son was born in early 2020]. Our life is not exactly what we hoped it would be, but in many other ways it’s incredible.

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